Turning Heel

Though a good/evil distinction is present in most narratives, when it comes to professional wrestling the dynamic between babyfaces (good guys) and heels (bad guys) is uniquely important. In an entertainment medium that lives and dies based on the reactions and whims of the live audience, it’s critical that the performers on the show, and in the context of the match, clearly communicate who is supposed to be cheered and who’s meant to be peppered with trash as they leave the arena. Generally, if a guy or gal is out there insulting your hometown sports team, the virility of your city’s population, or your state’s iconic fast food franchise it’s safe to say that they’re not looking to ingratiate themselves to the crowd and you should expect at least a couple of dastardly deeds in the match to follow. 

Maybe the best distillation of what might spur a character to turn from babyface to heel is the song Heel Turn 2 by the pro-wrestling-loving Mountain Goats, from their album Beat The Champ (2015). The repeated refrain of “I don’t wanna die in here” seems to refer to the desperation of a performer not connecting with the crowd in the way they should, but also the despair of watching someone cheating to win and asking ‘why not me?’ 

At some point, a babyface wrestler being “the upstanding man about town” puts them at a disadvantage when placed against a nefarious villain who’s willing to bend or outright break the rules in order to get ahead. Isn’t the point of all this to win, even if it means “letting the trash rain down, from way up in the rafters” and to “get out of here in one piece”?  

In modern WWE’s style of storytelling, babyface/heel alignments are primarily things that you, a character, are. ‘Heel’ is a noun, and is your whole identity. You’re on this side or the other, no matter what actions you take. If a babyface in WWE is being booed, as often happened with John Cena and Roman Reigns, something has gone horribly wrong creatively. Creative teams in WWE panic and attempt to course-correct, usually doubling down on their original plan, when a performer of either alignment isn’t getting the reaction they want or expect. WWE tends to blame the fans rather than it’s own creative process, tagging certain crowds as ‘Bizarro World’ where up is down, day is night, and John Cena is treated like a dastardly villain. They actively work against the crowd’s whims. 

Weirdly, denigrating the values, morals, and the general hygiene of Americans did not ingratiate Bret Hart to crowds in the USA.

This wasn’t always the case. At one time, WWE was inclined to lean into a crowd’s unexpected reactions like they did in 1997 with the successful and intriguing ‘USA vs Canada’ angle, in which Bret Hart was famously a heel south of the border, but remained one of the most popular performers in Canada. Bret would cut promos about the purity of Canadian values and culture in relation to the sleazy, warmongering American one, and as you might imagine, would receive wildly different responses from crowds depending on which side of the border the show was on that week.

I can remember in some of those places like Montgomery, Alabama, and places like that, getting in my car to drive off after the show and I would have hillbilly guys in trucks follow me for miles, shaking their fists at me and trying to drive me off the road. It was dangerous stuff.”

Bret Hart in an interview with Fightful

Similarly, there’s a famous example of a ‘blue chip’ babyface superstar in 1995–great body, lots of charisma, a pedigree from a family full of top-tier wrestlers–who was getting booed out of every building he wrestled in because the crowds at that time wanted someone with a little more edge. WWE (then WWF) leaned into it, turning that wrestler into a heel character on which he based a persona that he made famous around the world. That guy was Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. You might’ve heard of him.

In All Elite Wrestling (AEW), WWE’s main competition in the wrestling landscape, and in an increasing number of smaller wrestling promotions, the heel/face dynamic is just that–dynamic. Heeling is a verb, and is indicative of things that characters do. “Good guys” can do bad things sometimes, and it’s okay for the crowd to boo them. Conversely, it’s okay for “bad guys” to (seemingly) act honourably, like Bryan Danielson running down popular babyface Adam Page for not working hard enough. This also means that when a crowd isn’t acting the way creative dictates, like with AEW’s most divisive ‘John Cena’-esque performer, Cody Rhodes or the dastardly, sarcastic heel MJF being given a hero’s welcome in his hometown of Long Island, NY, there’s room to change direction or make the character’s alignment more situational than set in stone.

AEW’s top heel, MJF, is probably best known for his ability to rile up a crowd, and his extremely punchable face.

Both AEW and WWE’s old philosophy vis a vis Bret Hart and The Rock are demonstrations of a promotion being receptive to it’s audience and adapting the story to appease it, something that pro wrestling is uniquely capable of doing. Once a movie or TV show is made, it’s made, and any chance for interaction with that narrative is limited to things like throwing toast at the screen during a viewing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which, I’m sorry to say, has no measurable effect on the events of the film. Stage plays and ballet, while performed live, don’t allow the audience to have much of a dialogue with the performers and certainly the reactions of the attendees will not affect the outcome of the story. You’re never given the opportunity to change the outcome of a baseball game or a boxing match without resorting to criminal activity. In terms of giving an audience member some agency–or at least the feeling of agency–over the narrative or presentation, it’s pretty much just pro wrestling and video games where this feels possible. It’s what makes pro wrestling so compelling as an art form. The crowd is very much part of the show, and, in subtle ways, can steer the match by reacting more strongly to one performer or one set of moves or actions over another. That ebb and flow of momentum as the performers feed on the audience and vice versa can have both short and long-term effects on the match, and, in turn, the storyline and ultimately the trajectory of the performer’s career. And there’s countless examples of a crowd turning a performer heel or face during a match.   

On the Starz TV series Heels (think Friday Night Lights except it’s pro wrestling instead of football and you’d be close), much of the main struggle of the main characters–brothers Jack (Stephen Amell) and Ace (Alexander Ludwig) Spade who run their family’s independent wrestling company–the heel/face dynamic is a major theme, as you might have figured out from the title.  Jack, the perennial heel and the writer/booker for the company, starts to develop a fanbase while the crowd begins to turn on Ace, the company’s popular babyface. A large part of the season involves Jack convincing Ace to formally turn heel and that Ace will be a bigger star and get bigger reactions from the crowd by embracing his dark side in character. Ace is very much a jerk outside of the ring, so a new heel character would be a lot more closely aligned with how he acts out of kayfabe.

Ace Spade (Alexander Ludwig) and Jack Spade (Stephen Amell) from Heels explore what it means to be good, bad, and everything in between.

What I think works well on Heels is that it doesn’t just lean into the physical aspect of pro wrestling in the way that Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008) does. Heels is more concerned with the storytelling aspect of the medium and the way that characters (or, I guess, the characters’ characters) inform the matches, and how they’re affected by the crowds. There’s the added layer of family drama centered around the death of Jack and Ace’s father and the incursion of not only the WWE stand-in ‘corporate’ wrestling, but also an upstart organization with a more violent streak. But it’s all underpinned with the idea of deciding who you’ll allow yourself to be, whether in the context of one’s meticulously-crafted in-ring persona or the person you are outside of the ropes. 

“Drive the wedge/Torch the bridge/I don’t wanna die in here,” sings John Darnielle on Heel Turn 2, giving a performer permission to do just that. To “throw [one’s] better self overboard/Shoot ‘em when they come up for air” and embrace being a heel if that’s what the audience wants. Because in wrestling, the customer’s always right.

Sachin Hingoo thinks your hometown is uniformly crummy, and your local sports team is full of losers! 

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